It is nearly impossible to approach a film without knowing something about it in advance. Making movies is an expensive business, even for the smallest of productions, so ensuring that one’s market is properly targeted, is prepared to receive product, inevitably means breaking the skin of the story and allowing something to leak out; and when that story is of a certain kind of genre – like horror – it takes very little foreknowledge to pull the subtle teeth of a film maker’s vision. What option can the artist have but to do like all the others and rush into the big reveal, get it out of the way before trying some clever subversion, something which was – maybe – withheld from the trailers to make this one stand out?
Instead of this, Let the Right One In presents a wonderful thing: a horror in which revealing the most obvious key detail – that this is a vampire film – does nothing to spoil the slow, careful, almost non-committal journey leading up to what would otherwise be the big wasted revelation, that one of the people in this relationship is utterly not what they appear to be. In place of revelation we have implication, one which is presented early and clearly and then left to germinate. It may stand alongside other possibilities, more down- to-earth horrors, but we have no doubts in truth. We know what is really going on – if you want to read further, I recommend you watch the film first to form your own opinions.
Oskar, an introverted 12-year old Swedish schoolboy, is a victim of relentless bullying, which at first seems low-key but threatens to escalate. Unwilling to confide in his mother, who having separated from his father has deprived him of that confidant too, he is reduced to lonely walks through the snow-covered courtyard of his residential tower block, coveting an old hunting knife and composing fantasies of revenge which themselves show in Oskar the potential for greater violence.
Seeing the first of the young protagonists, one might be forgiven for assuming the blond and bloodlessly pale Kåre Hedebrant was playing the vampire in this story. Instead he portrays a ghost in the society of his school, only noticed by his peers when they need someone to torment and whose teachers barely register him even when he speaks. Even before the cruelty being inflicted on him starts to blossom into torture, Oskar shows glimpses of a dark side that Travis Bickle would recognise, a burgeoning hatred of what passes for the authoritarian amongst other children, and a growing interest in the bloodier side of mankind’s interactions.
Oskar is interrupted in his fantasies by Eli, a nocturnally inclined girl of about his own age who has recently moved into the flat next door with a man who, presumably, is her ageing father. These appearances are, of course, deceiving. Eli is ten times or more Oskar’s age and, as night falls and her hunger rises, her companion Håkan goes out into the world around the Stockholm suburbs, subduing young men in the snow before stringing them up like animals for the slaughter – and slaughtering them, bringing their blood for Eli to consume.
Dark hair and dark eyes emphasise Lina Leandersson’s vulnerable pastiness and superficially set Eli up as an opposite to Oskar; but, instead of the werewolf tradition with the school loner as the beast, here both outcasts are slowly drawn together by their shared lacks. As the story continues their relationship develops down conventional but unexpected paths, but whether either can be said to truly influence the other is open to question. Like her companion, Oskar puts a human face back on Eli’s prey and his interaction with her offers an experience of friendship which he is barely familiar with himself. In return Eli encourages Oskar’s defiance of the bully, feeding his urge to respond with violence in the process – but is Oskar provoking any change in Eli? And is Oskar’s latent aggression destined to be unleashed whatever happens?
Trouble approaches. Always risking discovery as he hunts on Eli’s behalf, Håkan is forced to abandon a kill without the blood she needs, in turn forcing Eli to take to the streets herself in search of food. Preying on the first local she can find, attention is drawn to the community and tensions rise. Disturbed by the contact between Eli and Oskar, and apparently satisfying his own interests, Håkan seeks his next victim at the school but again fails – and fails badly. The life he shares with Eli is falling apart – but the closeness growing between the vampire and her new friend is becoming ever stronger.
It is, perhaps, the relationship between Håkan and Eli which is the most significant. Although the element of the supernatural is obvious, in his behaviour Håkan is a serial killer; any victim would suffice, his ward is not picky when it comes to blood, but unless he was himself a monster when they first met Håkan has developed his own taste over the years and continues to pursue it even when safety would suggest otherwise. Further, and also reminiscent of the notion of sexual malfunction that is often associated with serial killers, Håkan exists in a relationship in which conventional sexual satisfaction is not possible. Eli could be read as the embodiment of a killer’s dysfunction, a parallel of the “normal”, but often sexually barren, family life which the psychopath leaves at home while sneaking off at night to find the release he cannot find with his wife.
Deprived of Håkan’s support, Eli’s urgency escalates and new threats emerge – while Oskar’s own developing aggression leads first to the satisfaction of revenge, then to the growing likelihood of serious repercussions. He accepts them with almost fatalistic calm, but with his life in the balance he is saved by their friendship, and a new partnership is formed from the wreckage left by the old.
Håkan’s disapproval of Eli and Oskar’s friendship is very suggestive: that he recognises the beginnings of his own companionship with her, that – ageing as he does – his time with her grows short and she knows a replacement must be found if her uncontrollable urge isn’t to be her undoing. While the climax of the film appears to show the brightness that follows a storm, Oskar has indeed taken on this role; he has allied himself to, although superficially female, an explicitly sexless creature – Eli is not just forever juvenile, but literally without gender. To another child this may seem like an unimportant detail, but what will the effect be on Oskar as he ages, as he matures but the object of his affections does not? Can there be any fate for him but that which eventually found his… predecessor?
Let the Right One In leaves these questions unanswered. I would ask of the title, who is this warning addressed to, and what defines the “right” one? It recalls of course one of the strongest facets of the vampire mythos, one which is strikingly realised in this film – but I don’t think Oskar is being warned here. I think Oskar is the right one, the person who can be trusted to enter Eli’s world, the one best able to provide for her needs, even though it means the slow sacrifice of everything he is or, in a normal world, could hope to become.